21.320 a room too small

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Mon, 29 Oct 2007 09:00:36 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 320.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Mon, 29 Oct 2007 08:55:09 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: a room too small

Let me pose an approach to a typical sort of literary problem and ask
for your comments. This approach I believe to be flawed, but I'd like
help in describing exactly how it is flawed.

The starting point is Ovid's Metamorphoses 1.2-3, specifically
"coeptis...meis" -- in this context:

>In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
>corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
>adspirate meis...
>[my] mind is moved to speak of changed forms in new bodies; you
>gods (for you have made the changes) breathe on my efforts...

Now one could argue, taking a Bakhtinian approach, that this literal
conspiracy between the gods and the poet is in effect a statement of
co-creative reading, a kind of license granted such a critic by the
poet. Be that as it may, the important matter here is not a
particular theory of how reading happens. Two things are important:
(1) not the enactment of any particular theory but the engagement
itself between the reader's idea of reading, whether consciously held
or implicit, and the poets text; (2) the way(s) in which the text
(en)trains the reader. What is demanded, then, is at the outset only
attentiveness to the words (ability to read them, i.e. mastery of the
language, is assumed). That is the single required act. Everything
else is optional, however desirable, e.g. knowledge of other Latin
literature, such as the Aeneid.

The ideal reader is as the one for whom Joyce writes Finnegans
Wake, who knows all literature, is totally awake, never needs sleep.
The presumption here is that the uneducated reading and the educated
reading differ in nurture rather than by nature, that somehow with
the right amount of nurture (e.g. a classical education) things will
happen in the reading that may be utterly surprising but are
derivable from the text -- not the particular things that happen,
perhaps, but the capacity for them to happen. Or by analogy: when the
well nurtured plant flowers, all the lesser gardners are amazed, but
the flowering plant is the same genetically as the one that has never
flowered. Indeed, I suppose all this gets us straight into the arms
of the nature/nurture argument, for which see Ian Hacking's recent
review of G.E.R. Lloyd's Cognitive Variations (Oxford), "How shall we
repaint the kitchen?", London Review of Books, 1 November, pp. 17-19.

Why ask this question here? The temptation to think in terms of a
genetic code is *very* hard to resist for those of us computing
humanists who want to get beyond text information retrieval. The
dream that seems very easy to have is the ability to describe for a
text the process that all readers follow to a greater or lesser
degree, at all times and places. But this dream induces in me severe
cognitive claustrophia. Is there a doctor in the house?


Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26).
Received on Mon Oct 29 2007 - 04:15:43 EST

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.2.0 : Mon Oct 29 2007 - 04:15:44 EST